The purpose of life,” writes Orest Stocco, “is to become a giver, not a taker.” And in his novel memoir he explores the nature of goodness which defines the volunteer.
A fascinating story woven into the Habitat for Humanity millennium blitz build in Thunder Bay, Ontario, On the Wings of Habitat will awaken you to your own potential for goodness. It is a story that goes against the currents of contemporary literature and dares to speak the truth about man’s spiritual purpose in life.
On the Wings of Habitat is a daring, provocative story that will inspire you to rethink your priorities and connect you to your inner self, and thereby your fellow man.
Barnes & Noble.com
On The Wings of Habitat is an intensely autobiographical but highly imaginative novel written in the first person about one specific Habitat for Humanity blitz build that took place in Thunder Bay, Ontario in the summer of 2000.
Habitat for Humanity is a worldwide organization that builds homes with volunteer labour for needy people. Without volunteers to build these homes Habitat for Humanity wouldn’t exist; and On the Wings of Habitat is a novel that seeks to explore with the full force of the creative imagination the unique character of one specific Habitat volunteer, a mystery man called Tom Hudson; and in so doing the story sheds light on the spiritual benefits of volunteerism.
The theme therefore is unselfish giving; and the questions that the novel seeks to answer are: 1. Why do people volunteer their time to a cause? 2. What’s in it for them? 3. What kind of people are volunteers?
The narrator of On the Wings of Habitat is a man who is not only a tradesman (a drywall taper and house painter), but an enigmatic seeker-writer who has found his answers; and it is his uniquely eclectic spiritual perspective on life that gives this novel its mystery, tension, and excitement.
On the Wings of Habitat is also a love story. Two Habitat volunteers fall in love at first sight during the blitz build, Tom Hudson and Lori Maki; but as critical as this love may be to carry the story along, it is Tom Hudson’s Christian dilemma that gives the story it’s fundamental drama.
Tom Hudson strikes a friendship with the narrator of the story, Oriano DiFelici; and through this friendship Tom’s Christian dilemma is given some measure of resolution, but only upon the condition that Tom Hudson rethinks some of the fundamental Christian premises that he holds dear.
Because of the narrator’s unique spiritual perspective on life (it appears to be New Age, but it’s eclectic) tension arises between Tom Hudson’s Christian belief in the one-life-one-savior (Jesus Christ) view, and Oriano DiFelici’s belief in the spiritual laws of karma and reincarnation.
This tension between traditionally held Christian faith and individual spiritual beliefs is also revealed with poignancy in the character of Norman-James Gauthier, a gay Roman Catholic and Habitat volunteer who plays an important part in carrying the story to a happy resolution.
Given the conflict that this novel forces into the open between Christian faith and opposing spiritual views held not only by the narrator but some of the other characters in the novel, it makes On the Wings of Habitat a provocative story that will force readers to step outside their paradigm and look at life differently, if only for a time.
The central character of the novel is the narrator. He is the most fascinating. What makes him so fascinating is his profound grasp of the spiritual life. Through him the reader is led into the esoteric mysteries of Jesus Christ’s teaching of spiritual rebirth; and how Oriano DiFelici came to grasp the secrets of this misunderstood teaching is what makes this novel such a unique story, and exciting read.
The Call from Habitat
It's not necessarily true, that if they build it they will come; not skilled volunteers, anyway.
"I can't make a commitment if you have no other tapers," I told Benjamin MacDoogle, chairman of the build committee for the city's Habitat for Humanity's millennium blitz build. "It's too much for one taper to take on."
They had decided, in their executive wisdom, to blitz build two semi-detached homes in the same amount of time, seven unremitting days, to make up for the house they didn't build the previous year because the newly acquired controversial St. Anthony's Roman Catholic Church property site wasn't ready -- highly optimistic and laudable, but in the trenches of joyful volunteerism a task worthy of Herculean effort.
That was why I refused to give MacDoogle a commitment. I had worked on three Habitat homes in Thunder Bay and I knew what was involved in the drywall end of the blitz, and I did not want to skunk my conscience with shoddy workmanship.
"I've called two other tapers and they said they would get back to me," MacDoogle replied, with noticeable dejection in his gravelly voice. "I have one more taper to call, but he's on a job out of town and won't be back till the weekend. Can I count on you to come if I get some other tapers?"
"Yes," I curtly replied. "Good luck getting other tapers," I added, with a wry chuckle.
This was MacDoogle's second call. He had left a message on my answering machine a week earlier, but I hadn't made up my mind if I wanted to volunteer my time and hadn't returned his call. Not that I didn't want to volunteer, I simply hated false pressure; and I knew that the tapers would be put under enormous pressure to meet the artificial deadline.
"What about Derrik and his brother?" I asked MacDoogle, suspecting that they would not show up this year.
"This is my last home," Derrik Gordon, a professional framer and part-time drywall hanger and taper, told me on our last Habitat blitz build. "Me too," his older brother, a pro- fessional machine taper, ruefully added.
Neither brother amplified, but they didn't have to; the last Habitat house that we taped in Current River (which was custom designed by a hot-shot architect whom every tradesman in the city hated working for) demanded the most of us.
"I hate indulging his fantasies," Derrick's laconic brother Barry, who had to hand-tape the Current River house with us, generously offered. Derrick just laughed.
It was a difficult house to tape in two nights, what with open dormer ceilings and time-consuming angles and drywall-return windows (aesthetically pleasing, but a far cry from Habitat's "simple affordable housing"), and to take some of the pressure off us I volunteered to texture the ceilings which spared us having to put a third coat of mud on them.
But they, in the boardroom where executive decisions are made, had no idea what went into this aspect of a blitz build; if they did they would not make such demands of their skilled volunteers. That's why the brothers Gordon declined to volunteer this year. Besides, they had taped every home since Habitat had opened up a chapter in Thunder Bay.
"I called them, but they said they're too busy," MacDoogle replied, again with dejection in his voice.
I laughed to myself. It was traditionally the busy time of year for tradesmen (which opens up the question why Habitat doesn't build in the spring, the slow season); but it wasn't that, the joyful spirit of volunteerism had been cast out of these two hard-working family men by the thoughtless demands placed upon them, and I felt the same way.
So if I said yes and turned out to be the only taper at the blitz build it would place impossible demands upon me, and quite possibly drive me to ill-health trying to meet them; and if I said no,it would leave the city with a giant heart in the lurch; so I was in a quandary.
But then, I didn't live in Thunder Bay. I lived in the small community of St. Jude, an hour and a half's drive from the city; that's why I didn't return MacDoogle's call -- and, shame on me for even thinking it, I was secretly hoping that he would not follow up on it. But he did, and I compromised. "I'll come if you find some other tapers. Otherwise don't count on me."
"Fair enough," MacDoogle said, his gravelly voice lilted with hopeful expectations.
* * * * *
It was by chance that I got involved with Habitat for Humanity. Actually, I don't believe in chance; so there was a karmic reason why I met Calvin Winterburn that day.
I was taping Calvin's brother's newly renovated two-storey maple-floored house. Kenny, a high school math and shop teacher, had just moved from Thunder Bay to Rock Point, a mill town neighbouring St. Jude. Calvin had come down for the weekend to help his young brother frame in some doors and finish hanging the drywall in the expected baby's room. Over coffee, he just happened to mention that he was involved with Habitat. "Good cause," I said. "I like the concept."
"We need tapers," he said, matter-of-factly.
Like so many tradesmen I've met over the years, Calvin Winterburn didn't mince words. I respected that.
"Sure," I glibly replied. "Give me a call. If I'm free I'll drive up."
"I will," he said, and smiled. Actually, it was more of a toothy grin than a smile. He had snagged me.
But I didn't mind getting snagged. Not by Habitat for Humanity. All I knew about Habitat was that it built homes by volunteers for needy people, and that President Jimmy Carter and his wife helped build Habitat houses; but that was cause worthy enough for me, despite the fact that I never espoused causes. I just knew that it was time for me to expand my own spiritual path.
"Are you involved with Habitat too?" I asked Kenny.
"No way. That's not my thing."
Several years younger than Calvin, Kenny was much too involved getting his own life on track -- a new job, his first home that he had just completely gutted and redesigned, and their first baby on its way -- he didn't have spare time to volunteer for Habitat or any other cause.
But remembering what Father Bud, whom I had served as an altar boy in my Catholic youth, once said in a Sunday sermon -- "If you want to get something done, ask a busy person." He was abrupt and to the point; but I didn't appreciate Father Bud's wisdom until much later in life -- I had to ferret Calvin's young brother out: "So what is your thing, Kenny?"
"I'm into golf," he replied, with an automatic puff of his
chest. "Whenever I can get away, that is," he added as a quick afterthought, with a nervous, apologetic laugh.
"Do you golf, Calvin?" I asked.
"Not much. I don't have a cushy teaching job with summers off like my kid brother here. I work for a living."
I sympathized, and chuckled. "What do you do, Calvin?"
"Contract work mostly. I'm a welder by trade, but I took up carpentry. Actually, I'm a cabinet maker."
"Is that you're connection with Habitat?"
"That's how I got involved. They needed someone to hang cabinets in their first house, and I was available. But last year they made me building chairman."
"Why do you do it?" I asked, for his brother's sake.
"It's a good experience," Calvin replied. "You meet nice people at Habitat. We've had some come in from the states on our builds. But I can't talk Kenny into it."
"No way, bro. It's not my thing!"
"Ah, what does he know about life? He's a school teacher," Calvin said, and laughed. I laughed too. Mirthfully.
* * * * *
Habitat for Humanity, whose raison d'etre is to build hope by building homes to help eliminate poverty, was founded in 1976. To date, more than 75,000 families around the world have moved from inadequate accommodations into their own homes by becoming members of the "Habitat family".
In Canada more than 300 homes have been built, seven in Thunder Bay, "the city with a giant heart," and home of the Terry Fox monument -- the one-legged runner who inspired thousands of people to his fund-raising cause for cancer research.(Terry Fox ended his cross country run in Thunder Bay when his cancer returned to claim his young life.)
An independent non-profit Christian organization, Habitat for Humanity is dedicated to providing affordable homes for people living in substandard housing; but ironically, our Thunder Bay chapter was initiated by a non-Christian custom home builder whose Pentecostal faith so constrained him that he had to flee his religion to find peace of mind.
Like myself, Mark Kingston was a spiritual seeker. I met him when I gave him an estimate to tape the home he was building for an excited young couple in the Oliver-Paipoonge township; but I remembered seeing him on the site of my third Habitat build.
He was walking around the first Habitat home in the city to use structural insulated panels, a technology designed to reduce the need for stick lumber and ideally suited for Habitat's blitz builds. Not dressed for working on the house -- tan shorts and olive green sport shirt and sandals on his bare feet -- he walked around with an aura of authority, leaving me with an impression that refused to go away. He was with Ian Koski, the young hot-shot architect with a fierce blue-eyed gaze out to make a name for himself.
The first thing that I noticed about Mark Kingston, a Buddhist convert whose spiritual goal was non-attachment, was his proud pony-tailed dirty blond hair and gold earring -- two props that life's karmic furnace had forced him to burn off by the time I met him again on the St. Anthony's Square build site -- and his thick, neatly-trimmed moustache that almost but not quite masked his scarred right lip which his alcoholic father gave him in a fit of anger.
We didn't meet then. I was too busy taping, and he was too involved in conversation with the budding Frank Lloyd Wright of the North who had just won a prestigious contract for a luxury hotel in Brazil; but we did catch each other's eyes and something connected. I didn't know what though until I worked for him on the young couple's dream home that he had hired me to tape that fall where it came out, by coincidence, that we both believed in reincarnation.
"Actually, there's a fundamental difference in our beliefs," I said to Mark, and smiled. I wasn't quite sure I should expound upon my New Age belief seeing that his older brother, a Pentecostal minister and part-time carpenter, was having coffee with us on our afternoon break and who Mark had informed me earlier frowned upon the presumption of all non-Christian religions. "For you there is one universal Self, no individual soul if you will," I said, knowing that this would challenge the minister's blind faith; "but for me there is a pre-existing self, an individuating soul," and Mark's brother, six years older, shorter, and unlike Mark's slender frame was built like a thick-necked bull, abruptly stood up and snorted out of the room, but not without first giving me that Christian look that would have sent a chill up my spine had I not encountered it before.
"Demon-possessed," said the good Baptist lady in my home town of St. Jude, about me. I chuckled when I heard this from May Tyler, a remarkable octogenarian widow who hired me more for intellectual conversation than her need for a house-painter; so rather than let it go unchallenged, I looked into Mark's brother's glazed eyes before he snorted out and calmly said, "Robert, don't go away disappointed. There is room in God's heart for all faiths."
"I believe in the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Son of God who sacrificed his life upon the cross for our salvation, and he doesn't say anything about reincarnation. It's an evil and seductive lie, and if you don't mind I don't want any part of this blasphemous conversation!"
"Suit yourself," I said, and smiled.
"I will!" he said, and snorted out.
Mark shook his head. "Don't mind him," he said. "He can't help himself."
"Maybe he can't; but it's that kind of attitude that retards the spiritual consciousness of society," I said.
"I hear you," Mark said.
* * * * *
"Tuesday, July 18th," MacDoogle said on the phone. "We should have the drywall all hung in one unit by three o'clock. I'm expecting three other tapers to come as well."
Smiling, "I'll be there by one."
"Good. See you then," MacDoogle said; but when I got to the St. Anthony's Square building site, which was just down from Hillcrest Park -- whose panoramic view overlooked the city, the huge upright tubular orange grain elevators, the marina sheltered by a thin dividing line of man-made rock break-water, Mount Mackay to the right, and in the horizoned distance Sibley Peninsula, better known to the aboriginal people and now marketed for tourism as the legendary Sleeping Giant Nanabosho peacefully supined on the surface of Lake Superior with his arms across his massive chest and huge profiled face taking in the heavens -- they hadn't completed sheathing the roof of the duplex, and people were scrambling about the site like coloured ants.
It was an impressive structure, though. A two storey building, 1250 square feet per unit -- making it five thousand square feet of drywall per unit to tape three coats of mud, the first two coats in quickset and the last in regular pre-mixed Synko and just possible to complete in two days by four professional hand tapers, but highly unlikely.
I saw Mark Kingston before finding MacDoogle. He had a carpenter's pouch strapped around his waist. "Big O!" he exclaimed, genuinely surprised to see me.
"Hi Mark," I said, somewhat reserved. Since I had last taped his house in Oliver-Paipoonge I had bid on two other homes that he built and lost out to another taper, so I felt some measure of professional unease between us.
I had given Mark a good price for his cathedral ceiling and difficult-to-tape custom house to establish a working relationship with him, but my second and third bids, at com- petitive market prices, were slightly higher than the taper he contracted -- Barry Gordon, who had two sons working for him whom he had to keep employed, hence his lower bids.
Understandable, being a businessman Mark went for the best tender he could get; but what I found difficult to swallow was his call asking me to take a day off work and drive two hours to his job site to tell him how much and what kind of paint to get and give him and his young helper some pointers on painting the house that he had given to Barry and his two sons to tape, prime, and texture.
"We're going to paint it ourselves," Mark said.
"Sorry," I replied, doing everything I could to keep from losing my cool. "I'm right in the middle of a job right now. I can't take time off work."
I was offended. He had given the taping job to someone else and then had the nerve to ask me to go out of my way to accommodate him. It was an act of blind selfishness that -- especially for a practicing Buddhist -- puzzled me.
"Good to see you, O," he said, with enthusiasm in his voice. "We need all the professional help we can get!"
I smiled. No pony tail, no earring, thin and drawn out, his dirty blond hair noticeably graying, ashen pallor, almost sickly looking. “Life must have really humbled him since we last met,” I thought to myself.
"Any other tapers show up yet, Mark?"
"Maybe. I don't know. Ask Big Ben."
"Whose Big Ben?"
"I know. Which one is Ben?"
"Oh. That big guy with a moustache over there."
I made my way over to Ben MacDoogle, one volunteer recognizing me from the last build -- Richard Ironwood, a retired mill worker and carpenter's helper wearing a Trades gray Habitat T-shirt, "Good to have you back!" he said, with a big happy smile and enthusiastic handshake; and then a short stocky woman in flowered tight shorts and red Habitat T-shirt exclaimed, "Yeah. Great to have you back!" but I didn't remember her, and just smiled gratefully.
Big Ben MacDoogle, a six-foot five lanky Scotsman with thinning red hair and inordinately long arms and who, sans moustache, looked like the renowned economist John Kenneth Galbraith (whose latest book The Good Society I had coincid- entally picked up at Chapters book store on Saturday because the theme, which dovetailed Habitat's humanitarian philosophy, appealed to me) and I shook hands.
He had a cigarette in his other hand, confirming my suspicion for his gravelly voice, and we talked for a minute or so to get acquainted; then, down to business: "Any other tapers show up, Ben?" I asked.
"Yeah. There was one here. He said he'd be back at four. And another two tapers are supposed to come at five after they get off work. That should be enough, eh?"
I smiled. "Where's the mud?"
"It's not here yet. I'll make a call right now to see if its on its way," he said, and took out his cell phone and punched out a number.
"Make sure that it's ninety minute quickset, Ben; not forty-five minute like the last build."
"Is there a difference?"
"Yes. Ninety minute quickset gives us more working time before it hardens up on us." “Why don't they consult the pro- fessionals before they jump into things,” I thought to myself. "Ben," I interrupted his call, "I'll be back in an hour."
"Okay. The mud should be here by then," he said, and turned to talk into his phone; but he then turned again and called me. "How many bags should I order?"
"Ten per unit. And ten boxes of pre-mixed mud. That's twenty bags of quickset and twenty boxes of mud. And don't forget to order the tape. We'll need eight large rolls."
"Good. Thank you," he said, and put his cell phone back to his ear.
I went over to check the unit we were supposed to start taping, but I could see daylight through the upstairs ceilings. They still had half the roof to cover, but people were nonetheless scurrying about frantically hanging drywall.
It was quite a sight, all of that frenetic labour that seemed totally aimless but which by some miracle attributable only to the merciful god assigned to Habitat for Humanity got done; not entirely professional, to my and any other volunteer taper's dismay, but it got done.
* * * * *
I left. I was only in the way there. I drove down the hill to Ontario Street, just a few streets from St. Anthony's Square, to visit Boris Petrochenko, a retired civil servant and long-time friend. He was home, but he had company.
Boris introduced me to the two men sitting in the kitchen, but the troubled look on one man's unshaven, brooding face intrigued me. "Bruce, you look like you've just lost your best friend," I said, and smiled.
"Worse," he replied, without cracking a smile. "I was supposed to pick my son up at the airport, but he didn't show. I don't know what's happened. I'm trying to get hold of his mother, but I'm not having any luck. I don't know what the fuck's going on. She's sticking it to me again. I know it. I can feel the knife twisting ---"
Obviously, he was divorced; and, more obvious still, it was not an amicable divorce.
"Where does your ex live?" I asked.
"Toronto. We drove here all the way from Dryden, and my kid doesn't show. I don't know what to do."
"We'll just keep trying to call her," Jake, a slender bearded man with long legs and well-worn black leather cowboy boots, said. "It's probably nothing serious, Bruce."
But it turned out to be serious for Bruce. His ex had cancelled their twelve year old son's flight because he had a dentist appointment the day of his flight. Bruce had been looking forward all year to having his son for two weeks, their fishing trip all planned. "She knows just how to really stick it to me and then twist it!" he seethed.
"How long have you been divorced?" I asked.
"Five years, four months, and ---" he looked at his watch and tried to crack a smile, but couldn't.
I laughed. "And still no resolution?"
"There will never be a resolution with her. She'll stick it to me every chance she gets ---"
"I gather you're not a happy camper," I said, and laughed again to help lighten the depressing atmosphere that emanated from Bruce like a dense, toxic fog.
Boris laughed, but Bruce didn't. Neither did Bruce's friend Jake. He was Bruce's moral support.
"I guess there's nothing more we can do, is there?" Bruce said, looking dejectedly at Jake. "We may as well head back home and I'll call her tonight."
"That's probably best," Jake said.
"There goes eight hundred bucks down the toilet," Bruce said, dripping with acrimony.
"You can't get a refund on your ticket?" I asked.
"No way. His seat was empty. He just didn't show. I don't know what happened. Maybe he got kidnapped, for all I know ---"
"Don't think that," Jake said. "Wait till we get hold of your ex before we think the worst."
"She stuck it to me again, Jake. I can feel it twisting right here --"
I wanted to laugh, but didn't; I smiled instead. It was, from my distant and happy perspective, amusing to see a man his age so angry and unresolved.
After they left, Boris and I went to the Hoito Restaurant for coffee and Boris filled me in.
Bruce was Jake's friend. Boris didn't know Bruce. Boris was Jake's friend from when Boris worked in Dryden. Boris had just met Bruce, but he let them both stay at his house for the night. They met the plane early in the morning, and Bruce panicked when his son didn't show.
Jake, who had also been divorced (he was on his third marriage), had taken Bruce under his wing. A few years younger than Jake, Bruce had been transferred to Dryden's Canadian Tire Store from Toronto and met Jake at an AA meeting.
"It shows," I said.
"What, that he's an alcoholic?" Boris asked.
"Yes. He's got all the symptoms of the selfish man," I said, and laughed. "Alcoholics are selfish people, Boris. But they can't see it. They want everything to go their way, and when things don't they drink. It's no mystery."
"There's a lot of truth to that," Boris, who spent years dealing with children from broken homes, said. "But Jake's good for him. I've known Jake for years, and he's a good man. If anyone can straighten Bruce out, he can."
"Bruce won't heal until he gets past his anger, and that won't happen until he gets on with his life."
"Yeah, isn't that always the case," Boris said. "My ex couldn't let go for years. It's only been the last few years that she's come around. I credit her husband for that."
I had heard this story before. Boris left his first wife because he felt suffocated by her. Usually it's the other way around, the woman leaves the controlling husband to reclaim her self-identity; but Boris, being an obdurate atheist, could no longer suffer his wife's repressive Christian faith.
"Now that I think about it," he told me one day, "it seems that the more I tried to be indifferent to her efforts to get me to see things her way, the harder she pressed me to give up my own views; and I couldn't take it any more."
"I'd like to know what Bruce's story is."
"I understand she left him," Boris offered.
"That doesn't surprise me. He gave me the impression he'd be a hard man to live with. A brooder. Anyway, I'll just be up the street at Habitat for the next few days. I'll drop by for coffee if I can get away....."
* * * * *
I couldn't help feeling anxious as I drove back up to St. Anthony's Square on the corner of Banning and Dufferin; not simply because I suspected that we were going to have trouble getting tapers, which I dreaded, something about this year's millennium blitz build affected me on a deeper level; and in a strange, coincidental way, Bruce's predicament with his ex wife and missing son was telling.
I couldn't make the connection, but I just felt that his estrangement from his wife and family was symbolic of Habitat for Humanity's raison d'etre; as though my volunteerism was beginning to take on a very human face.
Also, the fact that Habitat for Humanity was building their new homes on the site of the former St. Anthony's Catholic Church which had burned down, giving rise to St. Anthony's faithful parishioners' confrontation with the bishop who had decided to rebuild St. Anthony's Church at another location which the faithful resisted with stubborn fervour, confirmed my gut feeling --- as though all of the good energy of joyful volunteerism going into Habitat's two new semi-detached homes would be a healing salve to the spiritual wounds of alienation.
I pulled right onto the build site, up by Habitat's utility trailer and next to Cozyman's van. Cozyman's Sheet Metal and Heating, I learned later, provided the free labour to install the two gas furnaces offered, also free, by Cozyman's supplier. There was also a big shiny chromed Harley-Davidson parked between the trailer and neighbour's fence.
I opened the hatch door of my Windstar and began taking out my ladders and tools. As I carried my taper's bench ladder and an empty joint compound pail full of taping tools, I stopped to take in the whole site.
I wanted to mentally record my impressions of all the ant-like industry of dozens of Habitat T-shirted volunteers -- on the partially sheeted roof, on the scaffolding, sticking out unwindowed openings, and on the ground, men and women everywhere -- a vision that made me want to laugh at the happy chaos of all Habitat blitz builds.
I carried my tools to the temporary back steps. There was a table set up (a sheet of plywood on two saw horses) for the carpenters to read the drawings and on which Mark Kingston and Big Ben MacDoogle were leaning over. I didn't disturb them. I carried my stuff into the unit on the right, the one that was, supposedly, ready to start taping.
"Excuse me," I said, making my way through the "bodies" (unskilled volunteers, of which there were more than enough) when a woman yelled at me: "Oriano! What are you doing here?"
I smiled in recognition. "Oh, hi Lorie! I'm going to be taping the drywall," I replied.
"Really?" she said, genuinely surprised. "You drove all the way up here to volunteer your time?"
Lorie, who had moved to the city from St. Jude shortly after her early retirement from the Domcan pulp and paper mill in Rock Point and whose cancer-stricken husband she had just buried, was holding a piece of drywall that she was about to throw out the window opening. I set down my ladder and tools. "Yeah," I said. "I'm here again."
"You've done this before?" she asked, again with that happy surprise in her voice that gave me the impression this altruistic side of my personality had just shattered whatever former impressions she may have had of me.
"Yes. This will be my fourth build," I replied.
Beside Lorie, another lady was smiling at me. She also hailed from St. Jude. Lorie's sister-in-law. Wanda O'Neil. I hadn't seen her in years, but she was still a smart-looking, full-figured, very sensual-looking woman.
"Is that you, Wanda?" I asked.
"Yes. How are you, Oriano?" she replied, with a smile so radiant with joyful recognition that it automatically forced me to return the warmth with my own smile.
"I'm fine. You're looking fantastic -- as usual!"
"Thank you," Wanda said, her face instantly lighting up all over again. "You haven't changed much."
Wanda O'Neil had light blond hair, which in itself is not unusual; but when all the rest of her nine siblings had dark hair, it was. Wanda's father was born in Finland, and her mother was Ojibway; and the anomalous genetic combination of her mother's native brown skin and her father's Finnish blond hair gave Wanda the happy miracle of looking like she had a year-round sun tan that most women would die for. Wanda married an Irish Canadian, also from St. Jude, and they relocated to Thunder Bay because her husband got a job transfer (the real reason being that he wanted to get his wife away from her "native" family); and the only time I saw her again in twenty years or more, was at the dentist's office when I had to have a wisdom tooth extracted; she was the receptionist.
I chuckled to myself. I had put on a few pounds since I had stopped my daily running, noticeably around my waist, and my curly brown hair -- although mostly hidden by my ball cap work hat -- had begun to show signs of maturity; but otherwise, I'm sure, I looked the same to her.
"Thank you," I said, smiling. "How's Al?"
"He's fine. He's here working too. He's upstairs hanging drywall. You know we're divorced, don't you?"
"No," I said, surprised. "When?"
"Two years ago."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"Oh don't be sorry. We're getting along better now than we did in thirty-five years of marriage," she said, and then laughed.
Lorie laughed too. "You should see them, Oriano!" she said. "They haven't talked to each other since their divorce and now they're like a couple of love birds!"
Wanda smiled. Her light blue eyes -- another gift from her fair father -- had the glint of love, and her round happy face that reminded me of her mother's, radiated her rekindled love. I smiled too. "That's wonderful, Wanda," I said.
"Can you believe it? She didn't know Al had volunteered to work for Habitat. Now they're dating!"
"Oh, Lorie!" Wanda said, smiling.
What a beautiful experience to walk into at my fourth Habitat build; but reality began to take over, and the thought of all that taping that awaited me usurped that fuzzy warm feeling that I got from Wanda's rekindled love, and my professional side took over ---
"Lorie, would you girls clean out this kitchen for me? You're taking all the drywall out, that's good; but would you please clean everything out also -- all this stuff here. I'm going to start taping."
"Sure. Just tell us what to do. That's what we need, someone telling us what to do," Lorie said.
"Okay. I'll go get the rest of my tools and then I'm going to see if the mud has arrived."
On my way down the temporary steps Big Ben said to me, "The mud's on the truck at the front of the house."
"Good. Did you get any tape?"
"It should be there. Four rolls. That's all they had."
"That'll do for now," I said, and walked over to my van for the rest of my tools.
I noticed a tallish man standing by the Harley-Davidson -- pony-tailed, but no earring. He had taken off his red Habitat T-shirt and was wiping himself with it, his brow first, and then his underarms. Then he flipped open his saddlebag and took out some deodorant and rolled it on under his arms, and then he put on a sweat-band and a clean white muscle shirt.
"How you doing?" he said, catching me looking at him.
"Couldn't be better."
"You're first Habitat build?"
"I've lost count."
"I've stopped counting," he repeated.
I smiled. "You've done that many?"
"Yes," he said, strapping on his leather carpenter's pouch. "Are you the taper?"
"One of the tapers. I'm keeping my fingers crossed."
The man, six-one, maybe two, early sixties, high-cheek- boned clean-shaven face, lean, muscular, with an aura of professionalism and obvious gravity, smiled. "Yeah. It's the same everywhere. It's hard getting professional tapers."
I chuckled. "I suppose it would be. Is this your first build in Thunder Bay?"
"Where you from?"
"Here and there."
"What are you, an itinerant good Samaritan?"
The man laughed. He walked up to me and gave me his hand to shake. "Thomas Hudson. But call me Tom."
"Oriano DiFelice," I said, shaking his firm grip. "But just call me O," I added, and smiled.
"O? Interesting. Nice to meet you, O. Can I give you a hand with that?'
"Sure," I said, and handed him my pail with the rest of my taping tools -- my drill and mixer, several more blades, my tape-holder, hammer, screwdriver, and one hand-sander.
"Do you want that pail of mud too?"
"Yes, please," I said, and he took the two pails and began walking to the house.
I followed with my other step ladder in one hand and my hawk and an empty pail in the other. Tom put my pails down in the kitchen and disappeared upstairs.
"Do you know that man?" I asked Lorie.
"No. But I'd love to meet him!" she exclaimed.
"I guess your grieving period is over, eh?" I chuckled.
"Hey, I'm not going to be like those Italian widows who dress in black for the rest of their lives! I'm going to get on with my life. I'm only fifty-five, you know!"
I laughed. "Good for you, Lorie!"
"Why not? I've got a lot of years left!" she said, in that same excited voice that underscored everything she said. "So you can introduce me to that man if you don't mind!"
"I just met him," I said, and laughed.
"What's his name?"
"Thomas Hudson. But he likes to be called Tom."
"I'm serious, Oriano; I want you to introduce me to him. I don't know what it is about him, but every time I see him I get this strange feeling right here ---"
Lorie grabbed her stomach.
"You know what that means, don't you?"
"If it's what I think it is you'll find out in good time," I said, and chuckled. "Okay, what about these boxes here. Whose are they?"
"They must be the electricians," Wanda said.
"Would you girls put them in the middle of the living room floor, please. I won't be taping in there till later."
"Okay. Good. Let's do that," Lorie said....
* * * * *
I found the joint compound. There was a whole skid of pre-mixed boxes and bags of quickset wrapped in heavy plastic on the flat-bed at the front of the house. I called for some bodies to give me a hand and three people, two women and one man, came over to help me carry the joint compound into the house; but there was no tape. On the way I told Big Ben.
"They were supposed to bring it. I'll go and check. I'll bring it to you."
"There's no rush, Ben. I've got a roll of my own I can start with."
"Okay. Good. Did the other taper show up?"
"He said he'd be here by four. The other tapers are supposed to come at five."
"I hope they show," I said, and went into the house to start taping. I needed water to mix my quickset, so I took a pail downstairs and met the electrician working on the panel.
"You back here again?" the grizzly bearded, beer-gutted, gruff-speaking electrician said.
"Yup," I replied, in his gruff native tongue.
"It's a helluva lot crazier this year."
"Two for the price of one," I chuckled.
"There's no way we'll be done in one week."
I laughed. "They're dreaming. It'll take a whole friggin week just to tape these houses!"
The electrician, whose name I learned later was Kenny, laughed; and of all the volunteers I had met on the Habitat blitz builds, he was the one who most captured the happy spirit of volunteerism -- a good-humoured, phlegmatic man who enjoyed all the frenzied activity of the seven day builds; a calm at the center of a storm, and just the opposite of what one would expect him to be from his unkempt appearance.
The furnace men (a dour, middle-aged man with a front tooth missing, and his young chipmunk-darting apprentice) were also downstairs doing work, but they weren't volunteers; they were on Cozyman's payroll. They hadn't connected with the joyful spirit of Habitat for Humanity, and probably never would; and as much as they tried to be cheerful, they could not; and it showed in their long faces.
They had a job to do, and they were doing it as best they could under impossible working conditions. They had no appreciation for all the frenzied activity that went on in every corner of both units, and they pretty well kept to themselves throughout the entire build.
I brought my pail of water upstairs and mixed some quickset and began taping the kitchen, with four volunteers, all women with nothing to do, watching in amazement at my speed. But all tapers work fast and efficiently. It's the nature of our trade -- inspired by piece-work, which motivates us to work as quickly as possible so we can squeeze in all the jobs we can get in the short building season.
But it didn't take long to hit the snag that all Habitat blitz builds overlook -- improperly set drywall screws.
They interrupt the natural rhythm of the taper's work and exasperate us so much when we have to stop to inset the screws that it drives us to swear our own personal litany of profanity, usually prefaced with one loud "FUCK!"
But I bit my tongue. "Would one of you ladies take that screwdriver in my pail there and a putty knife and go around and set these screws in. Take the knife like this and rub it over the screw head, and if it sticks screw it in."
I showed them, and an elderly gray-blond haired woman whom I learned to be Big Ben's wife, got the screwdriver and a blade out of my pail and began checking the screws; but it proved to be too hard for her frail wrist, and a younger woman offered to take over. "Let me try," she said.
I knew this other woman. She too had relocated to the city from St. Jude after the scandal of her husband having an affair with one of his young waitresses. His name was Gunther Wurst, an Austrian immigrant who had opened up a small bistro and butcher shop in St. Jude. With three young children and a fourth one on the way, his affair with the young waitress so offended the community that the good women of St. Jude began to boycott his business; and within the year he was forced to sell out. Abandoning his wife and family, he moved to British Columbia with his young lover; but I couldn't think of his wife's name. "Don't I know you?" I asked.
"Yes," she said, and smiled. "I'm Diane Wurst. I lived in St. Jude too. But it's not Wurst any more. I've gone back to my maiden name. Blanchette."
"Of course," I said.
"I've got a Habitat house too," Diane said, with a big, happy smile. "We just moved in two months ago."
"That's why I'm here. Two of my kids are working here too," she said, again with a big, happy smile.
"You mean your kids are that old already?"
"Yes," she said, and rolled her eyes.
I laughed. "So you're working off your five hundred hours of sweat equity, is that it?"
"Yes," Diane said. "You know, there seems to be a lot of people here from St. Jude."
"Maybe Habitat needs our patron saint," I said, and burst into a hearty laugh.
Diane, whom I remembered to be a regular church-going Baptist (as was her lecherous husband), laughed too, and so did Ben MacDoogle's wife whose name I learned was Irene.
"But we're not really that desperate, are we?" Irene MacDoogle offered, in defense of her build chairman husband whose project seemed to be getting away on him.
"If no other tapers show up we're going to be in a real pickle," I said, quite seriously.
"Yes. I know," Irene MacDoogle conceded. "Maybe we had all better pray to St. Jude, then ---"
* * * * *
A smiling white-haired lady walked around the site and through both units clanging her tinny bell calling everyone to stop working.
Dinner was being served at the Immanuel Lutheran Church two blocks up the street, on the corner of Banning and Pearl, a five minute walk away; but I couldn't stop until I had used up my fresh batch of quickset.
It was almost five o'clock, and I feared that no other tapers would show up; but I was wrong. Rudy, a very tall man (anatomically correct for the trade of drywall hanging and taping!) walked into the kitchen. He took a quick scan, then said, "Just you taping?"
"Just me. I hope you're a taper."
"I am. But I can only stay a few hours."
I stepped down off my bench ladder and gave the man my hand and introduced myself. "Rudy," he said, shaking my hand."I thought there was supposed to be four tapers tonight."
I chuckled. "Did you bring your tools?"
"Yeah. I'll go and get them."
It was a joy watching Rudy taping. He was so tall (he taped the ceiling joints from the floor) and fit and fast and expert that it made me want to go on a diet and take up long distance running again -- something that happened so often to me that I was beginning to fight a complex; but Rudy used a brush-like tool for taping the inside corners that I had never seen used before, and I had to ask him about it.
"It's a whisk. You never saw this before?" he said, and handed it to me.
"No. I've always used my small angled blade," I said, looking over the taped-up short-bristled whisk.
"You can't beat it for a hand taper," Rudy said. "It catches both sides of the angle. With the blade you can only mud one side at a time. "I'll blow you away with this," he added, with a serious chuckle.
Rudy was proud of his skill, as are most tradesmen who work for themselves; but tapers, especially, are proud of the speed with which they can tape a house. It's a macho thing very difficult not to get caught up in; but I resisted.
However, whenever I found a way to save time taping without compromising the integrity of my work, I incorporated it into my trade. "Where can I get a whisk like this?" I asked. "I'd like to try it."
"Anywhere. Canadian Tire. But you have to cut it down and tape it up like this," he said, showing me.
"How long you been using this?" I asked.
"What?" I said. He looked too young.
"Yeah. I started taping at seventeen."
"I've never seen this before. Do many tapers use it?"
"Not many. Most hand tapers use a blade. My brother uses a whisk. He likes it better than a blade."
"Do you machine tape too?"
"No. I'm a hand taper. But if this whisk will save me time I want to try it."
"Guarantee it'll save you time," he said, and smiled.
"Are you guys going for dinner?" a woman who poked her head through the open doorway called.
"In a bit. As soon as we finish the mud in this pail."
Rudy had eaten at home, so I walked up to the Lutheran Church alone. Everyone was seated and eating and talking and laughing. I picked up a prepared plate of shepherd's pie with pasta salad and a bun and cold drink and then looked for a place to sit, which I spotted across from the mystery man.
I smiled to myself because I just love how the spiritual language of coincidence works: I was hoping to get a chance to talk to Tom Hudson, and there it was.
"Any other tapers show up yet?" he asked, as I sat down.
"One. But he can only stay a few hours."
"Is he coming back tomorrow?"
"He can't. He's got a house to start tomorrow."
"Too bad. Any other tapers coming?"
"I'm hoping. You don't tape, do you?"
Tom laughed. "I tried on one build in Minneapolis, but I did such a lousy job I decided it wasn't for me. I don't mind hanging the board, but no taping thank you."
"You intrigue me, Tom. If you don't mind my asking, what do you do for a living? Or are you retired?"
"Retired. I had my own business."
"What kind of business?"
"Men's clothing stores. HUDSON'S. You may have heard of them. They're in a couple dozen states. None in Canada. I was headed up here just before I sold out."
"My wife died."
"Sorry to hear that. Any children?"
"Two. Both grown up and happily married."
"Not in the business?"
"No. Both have careers. My daughter's a dentist with a nice little practice in Phoenix, and my son's an aeronautical engineer in Florida."
"And you travel from Habitat build to Habitat build just for something to do?" I asked, hoping to draw him out.
"As a matter of fact, I do," he replied, and grinned.
"You know who you remind me of? Not exactly, but enough to make me want to ask if you've read ---"
"Don't say it. Let me guess. Robert Pirsig? Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?"
I laughed. "What did you think of it?"
"I have a Harley, don't I?" he grinned again.
Smiling, I said, "Don't tell me you're one of those executives who sat back in his big leather chair one day and said to himself, `What the hell is it all about, anyway?' and decided to get out of the rat race and look for an answer to the big question of life?"
Tom Hudson smiled. But his smile quickly faded, and his face took on an ominous expression. He looked deep into my eyes and stared at me for the longest time, without blinking, as though he had just been challenged.
I smiled self-consciously. He continued to stare at me, making me very uneasy. I was just about to say something when to my surprise his eyes, which I was forced to notice were light green in colour, began to tear up. Then he opened his mouth to speak, but he hesitated a moment as though given one last chance to change his mind ---
"Not quite," he finally said, his confident executive voice breaking. "I was so involved building my little empire that I drove my wife to suicide and I couldn't live with the guilt. Yes, you could say that I'm an itinerant good Samaritan. Maybe a penitent Samaritan. But I will never be able to make up for what I did to my wife and family -- never!"
Then he abruptly picked up his paper plate and got up and left the table, leaving me stunned.
* * * * *
I couldn't stop thinking of Tom Hudson as Rudy and I taped the kitchen, hallway, and living room.
Most of the volunteers had gone home and there were no lights hooked up yet, so we had to work faster and faster to have the ground floor ready for the sanders and painters in the morning; and without noticing it, the mystery man completely vanished from my mind as the daylight faded.
"Rudy, don't worry about third-coating the ceilings. I'm going to texture them tomorrow."
"Oh, good. We'll get her done then!"
"Are your sure you can't make it tomorrow?"
"Sorry, O; I promised."
"I understand. Hey, Rudy; don't you use the big trowel for the third coat?" I asked, noticing that he was using the same eleven inch beveled trowel for the joints, otherwise known in the trade as "flats".
"No. I use this for the second and third coat. You don't need a big trowel. Here, let me show you ---"
Rudy scooped up some mud from his hawk and ran it down a horizontal flat in the living room in one smooth motion, then he ran back into it cleaning up and spreading more smoothly the top line of the mud and then he ran it forward again to do the same with the bottom line, and then he exchanged his trowel for his six inch blade which he held in the fingers of his left hand that also held his hawk -- as do I and most tapers -- and he cleaned up the excess mud on the top and bottom lines of the smoothly spread mud with the blade. His motions were so fast and expert that it didn't surprise me he didn't want to invest five or six thousand dollars in the machine taper's miracle tool -- the bazooka.
"There!" Rudy proudly said. "You don't need the big trowel for the third coat! Why feather it out all the way up to here and here," he said, pointing to an imaginary line six or seven inches above and below his mud line. "You don't need all that mud. You're just working for nothing!"
It's logical," I said, smiling at Rudy's rationale. "But with the big trowel you automatically expand the width of the flat. And the big trowel isn't beveled. It's flat."
"You can get them beveled too," he said. "But you don't need it. But hey, it's what works for you. Me, I don't think it's necessary; and I've had no complaints in twenty-seven years of taping!"
I laughed. "Maybe you've got something there, Rudy."
"I know I have. Try it, O. You'll see!"
It was out of character for a tradesman to pass on his time-saving skills, especially to another tradesman; but I wasn't a threat to Rudy's business because I didn't work in the city, except for the occasional job; that's why he opened up to me, and he admitted as much ---
"I don't mind telling you O, because you're not from here. Otherwise --" he said, and laughed.
I liked Rudy. He had the virtue of the honest, hard-working tradesman that I found less and less in the building trades; and he commanded my respect.
"I'm sorry you can't be here tomorrow, Rudy. I enjoyed working with you," I said, as we shut down.
We had completed the ground floor by ten o'clock and I still had to drive home to St. Jude, my arms and shoulders and lower back aching from all that speed taping as we tried to beat the clock.
"Yeah, it was nice working with you O," he said. "We might bump into each other again."
"Who knows?" I said, smiling.
"Take care," he said, and waved good-bye.
"You too," I said, feeling sad to see him go.
I positioned the big industrial red fan in the hallway, between the kitchen and living room, and plugged it in for the night to speed up the drying process; and then I carried my two ladders and pails of tools to my Windstar (which I had christened "Eckstar" (Eck meaning Spirit).
There were no doors hung yet, but even if there had been I would not have left my tools in an empty house; not even a Habitat for Humanity house.
I had learned the hard way, confirming the practical (to the uninitiated, idiotic) wisdom of the inimitable Mulla Nasrudin, to put your trust in God but to always tie up your camel -- a Sufi saying which, like all of the Mulla's cryptic sayings, captures the elusive spirit of the safest and most natural path back home to God -- self-reliance.
I looked at my watch. It was ten-thirty. I was the last volunteer there. It was so quiet that I felt abandoned.
I stepped into "Eckstar", started the motor, turned my radio on to the CBC for the rest of Eleanor Wachtel's Writers & Company, and pulled out of St. Anthony's Square for my long, relaxing drive back home to St. Jude.